Friday, February 6, 2015

Gravity's Rainbow


This month, I moved into a house with my partner. The move itself was stressful, exhausting, exhilarating. We're not entirely settled in, but half of my books are. There's a distinct pleasure in releasing books from their cardboard prisons, letting them gasp for the shelf. At my parents' house, in my old bedroom, lay the other half of my books. There are a lot. Some books have been sitting on the shelves there for years, waiting for me, calling to me. Both Infinite Jest and Gravity's Rainbow beckon to me, daring me to ascend their mountainous reputation. After seeing the film of Inherent Vice, which I enjoyed, (I also quite liked the novel) I had the hankering of trying to read Against the Day, a project I memorably failed at. However, when I unpacked Against the Day, I also unpacked Pynchon's acknowledged masterpiece, 1973's Gravity's Rainbow. I thought perhaps now I'm ready, now I'm prepared both mentally and emotionally for one of the supreme postmodern fantasies.

The last time I tried to read this behemoth, I stumbled quite immediately, giving up around page 70, specifically during the scene in which Slothrop imagines/remembers dropping his harmonica down the toilet. He plunges into the ceramic void, leaving his legs and back vulnerable. He then imagines Malcolm X and other black people pulling off his pants and preparing his anus for penetration. In order to escape this predicament, Slothrop tumbles into an underground world of literal shit, which gets everywhere. It's a harrowing sequence, not only for the racism, but for the visceral yet oneiric prose. I have never forgotten this scene.

Starting Gravity's Rainbow for the third or fourth time (the very first time, a quickly aborted attempt, was during high school with a cool looking 80s paperback I'm sad I sold or lost), I certainly enjoyed the prose a lot more. There's a certain looping loopy madness to Pynchon's sentences that is a pure joy to read. I read somewhere, and I can't remember where, that Pynchon has a "mathematical exactitude" to his prose. This description captures part of the allure of his work. While each scene might jangle and shake, as if another word or Dickensian joke name will derail the dangerously overloaded train, each word feels perfectly placed. If forced to point to a single strength in Pynchon's prose, it must be the focalization. Most of the novel is in present tense, third person, but the narrator refuses to stay there, moving into and out of characters, back and forth through time, creating an oscillation of focalization. Surely this is intentional as oscillation, parabolas, and the relationship between cause and effect is of the utmost interest to the novel.

A sample of the prose, then perhaps? Here we have 125-6 of the original Viking edition (the pagination also corresponds with the Penguin Classics featuring rocket blueprints). In this section, Roger Mexico contemplates his relationship with Jessica and his job as statistician with Pointsman:
He was taken over then, for half a minute, shivering and yawning in his long underwear, soft, nearly invisible in the December-dawn enclosure, among so many sharp edges of books, sheafs and flimsies, charts and maps (and the chief one, red pockmarks on the pure white skin of lady London, watching over all. . . wait. . . disease on skin . . . does she carry the fatal infection inside herself? are the sites predestined, and does the flight of the rocket actually follow from the fated eruption latent in the city . . . but he can’t hold it, no more than he understands Pointsman’s obsession with the reversal of sound stimuli and please, please can’t we just drop it for a bit. . . ), visited, not knowing till it passed how clearly he was seeing the honest half of his life that Jessica was now, how fanatically his mother the War must disapprove of her beauty, her cheeky indifference to death-institutions he’d not so long ago believed in—her unflappable hope (though she hated to make plans), her exile from childhood (though she refused ever to hold on to memories). . . .
Gorgeous. Notice the free indirect speech during the aside, matching the rhythm of Roger's confusion and introspection. Rather than capture the bouncing reality of stream-of-consciousness, the narrators keeps a more looping quality to it, repeating the structure of parenthetical asides as almost punctuation. I'm always reminded of James Wood and his book How Fiction Works. He writes about the concatenation of seemingly insignificant details that amount to significance. It is simple clauses, simple little moments, physical characteristics, thoughts, feelings, sensations, that accumulate and make a novel living. Here, Pynchon adds a tiny clause, a single word surrounded by commas in order to make this moment. In the first sentence, Roger shivers in his long underwear, and then Pynchon adds the word "soft" taking this description from good to fully realized. The word "soft," enclosed in its own clause, is evocative, alluring, almost a whisper of sensation. The sounds of "soft" are composed of a voiceless alveolar sibilant (s), an open back unrounded vowel (as represented by "ɑ" in the International Phonetic Alphabet), a voiceless labiodental fricative (f), finished by an voiceless alveolar stop (t). The assemblage of the sounds amounts to essentially a soft stop, and thus, enclosed in its own clause, creates an arresting yet gentle moment. Yes, as de Saussure reminds us, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. Yet, somehow, the word "soft" does an amazing amount of labour for a tiny word comprising four letters. Wiktionary informs me (sorry, my subscription to the OED has lapsed unfortunately) that "soft" comes from Middle English ("softe"), then from Old English ("sōfte") and then from Proto-Germanic "*samftijaz" which spectacularly includes the word "level" in the list of meanings. Finally, the modern English "soft" probably derives from Indo-European prefix "*sem-" indicating "one" or "whole." I might point out that Roger, in this passage, is contemplating his lack of oneness, his lack of "at-one-ment" but finds some sort of solace in his long underwear. I can't claim that Pynchon knew all this (the history of "soft"!) when including this clause, but the beauty of this clause is more than its sound or its isolation.


Gravity's Rainbow does, like all masterpieces, reward this type of reading, this type of concentrated combing of abstruse meaning from seemingly inconsequential words. For example, Pynchon sets an early sequence of the text in a "grimed brick sprawl" called the Hospital of St. Veronica of the True Image for Colonie and Respiratory Diseases. While it's a typically funny garrulous Pynchonesque title, the phrase itself includes a pretty good pun. Veronica, cut in half provides us with "vera" and "icon" which we know are the Latin originals for "true" and "image." This is obviously the kind of fun that I'm made for. This is why I enjoyed Joyce so much (enJoyced?).

Perhaps more than the prose of Gravity's Rainbow, I was struck by how thoroughly the theme is incorporated into the novel. This might seem like a strange compliment to afford a novel ("why, it manages to say something consistently; how novel!"), Pynchon truly earns a thematic complexity that not very many novels manage to sustain. The idea of a rocket is thought through in countless exhaustive ways, from the phallic to the mechanical. The motion of the rocket is also comprehensively considered: in the structure of the text, in the oscillations of focalization, from a sentence to sentence, and in the motions of the characters. Gravity's Rainbow, as a complete novel, is an arc, with the strike of the rocket in the first couple pages, and the launch on the final, which of course speaks to the novel's obsession with the complicated relationship between cause and effect.

This examination of causality, the fallacy of it, is not simply a philosophical game for Gravity's Rainbow; this investigation includes even close introspection on the concept of paranoia and conspiracies. Pynchon is quite known for the inclusion of conspiracies within his texts and here, he takes the intrigue to its apotheosis. He comments quite astutely on the figure of the paranoiac and its obsessive tendency to see connections where there are none. The rocket's parabolic motion, a symbol for the linear, the observable, is turned around, a connection is made between two unconnected events (strike, then launch?). Is this simple paranoia or evidence of a vast plot?

The plot of the novel is typically vast, of course. I found it difficult to follow, especially considering the size of the cast, the geographic distance traversed, the potentially random but perhaps not connections between plot points. This is a novel that moves both linearly and not. The plot moves forward from point to point but not in the "correct" fashion of "event b happens because event a." No, that would be too easy, and not thematically apropos. I mobilized various resources in my (non-linear) journey through Gravity's Rainbow; they were of indescribable help. I am not too proud to admit I had help. I am proud, however, to proclaim that I finished it. Even if the last hundred pages were almost impossible.


Now I can say I've read it, that I've finished one of the more difficult novels in the English language. Honestly? It wasn't that it was difficult in terms of plot, prose, or coherence. The issue is that Gravity's Rainbow is dense and challenging in terms of subject. I learned quite a bit about chemistry, physics, engineering, comic books, and mathematics. There's a complicated "log"-"cabin" joke (as in "logarithm") that's delivered in the form of an equation (page 450). It's also a joyous novel filled with utterly human moments such as when a German rocket scientist, sequestered into research, has yearly visits with his daughter, only for a week each time, and he suspects that the Third Reich has replaced her one year with a doppelganger for convenience's sake. He isn't sure, and the indeterminate nature of his "daughter" haunts him (pages 420-1). There's also long moments of pure art, art for art's sake, such as when Pynchon provides an overview of the War (128-136), how it affects everybody, how it changes everything. He also flashes forward into an obscure future "The Occupation of Mingeborough" in which kids are shown to grow old, "with or without Uncle Tyrone" Slothrop (page 743). Utterly heartbreaking yet life affirming at the same time.

I'm reminded of David Foster Wallace's story "Good Old Neon," the whole story predicated on Wallace's attempt to imagine his high school acquaintance's life. Like anything Wallace did in his too-short life, the project operates entirely on empathy. Wallace wanted to understand, wanted to experience in order to relate. He used his considerable intellect not to show off, not to lord over people, but to connect with them. I believe Pynchon is also interested in more than postmodern games in Gravity's Rainbow. Perhaps the text is attempting to grapple with large philosophical and moral dilemmas (such as how War could continue on such a scale, and why) while connecting them with the human figures that are inevitably, inexorably, chewed up by the system. Here is Pynchon at his most humanist, I believe, from page 231:
"I would set you free, if I knew how. But it isn’t free out here. All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all. I can’t even give you hope that it will be different someday—that They’ll come out, and forget death, and lose Their technology’s elaborate terror, and stop using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level—and be like you instead, simply here, simply alive...."
Simply here, simply alive.

I loved Gravity's Rainbow. Perhaps, I enjoyed V more, if only because it was zany and unbelievable, but this text says more, does more, includes more, without sacrificing focus or humanity. It's a beautiful novel, and I think Pynchon's tendency towards beauty is often forgotten or underrepresented in comparison to his unhinged brilliance.

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